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Real Voices: Meet the creator of the #HelpArtSaveLives movement

British contemporary artist Patrick Brill, better known by his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, created the online campaign #HelpArtSaveLives to encourage artists to sell their work using social media and donate proceeds to charity. In this week’s Real Voices, Bob explains how and why he started the movement, and why it is a great opportunity for grassroots artists to find a different audience and purpose for their work.

The thing that led me to start ‘Help Art Save Lives’ was listening to an interview with the surgeon David Nott. David was talking about his experiences of volunteering for Medicins Sans Frontieres, where he would perform surgery in war-torn countries. In the interview, he described being in Aleppo as a surgeon during a particular battle over a marketplace, which was deeply horrifying and traumatic. I was very impacted by the interview, and it inspired me to create a piece of art about it.

A lot of my art is to do with text, so I transcribed David’s interview onto a painting and exhibited it at the Royal Academy. David Nott and the interviewer of the radio programme, journalist Eddie Mair, came and saw the painting, and I had the idea to sell it and donate the funds to David’s charity, the David Nott Foundation. I also sold prints of it, and it got me thinking about how further to use art to raise money for charity.

Artists are always being asked to donate works for charity, but I realised I could do something much more grassroots. Get people making artworks and selling them, in return for a donation to a humanitarian charity.

I started the hashtag #HelpArtSaveLives on social media, which meant that any artist could advertise their piece with the hashtag and generate charity donations. It’s such a simple idea, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. We’ve had Comic Relief and Live Aid, Macmillan coffee mornings and so on, but there’s never been an ‘Art Aid’.

I’d been talking about the project for years but hadn’t gotten that far with it. Lockdown focused me, and with many more people connecting through social media at that time, I managed to raise £10,000 for various charities, selling watercolour paintings I had done of the seascape near where I live in Ramsgate. When the conflict in Ukraine began earlier this year and the Disasters Emergency Committee launched their appeal, I decided to focus on fundraising for that, and I raised over £20,000 in the first few weeks, making and selling several prints a day for £200 each.

To put it very simply, artists make and sell things. It’s a very immediate thing that we do, I can make a drawing and it’s worth something. So whilst I can’t give £30,000 to charity, it is within my power to generate funds through selling art.

#HelpArtSaveLives gives people incentive to make larger donations. Someone might normally give a few quid to charity, but if they’re getting a work of art in return, they will be prompted to give more. They get a piece of art that reminds them of that donation they made, and reminds them of the cause.

It opens things up for artists as well, and gives their work value. Even if artists don’t find it easy to get their work in galleries or on the mass market, you can find the value of it by getting it onto social media, and suddenly it’s raised money for charity and potentially saved lives. It’s a different kind of value that you can give your art. Everyone can do it as well, children in schools could make and sell art at school fairs and raise money for charities.

We are doing a workshop at the Tate Modern shop on 19 October which will be based around the #HelpArtSaveLives idea, and we will do more in future.

The original painting of David Nott’s interview is still being exhibited at the National Museum of Wales, but it will hopefully be sold soon for around £100,000 which will go to the David Nott Foundation.

The #HelpArtSaveLives project is very much an ongoing thing, we’ve got lots of plans in the works, but it will continue to be a very grassroots thing because that’s where I think it works best.

Find out more about the project by following #HelpArtSaveLives on Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow the Bob and Roberta Smith on Instagram @bobandrobertasmith and Twitter @BobandRoberta.